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309th AMARG

Historic military aircraft find new life at Tucson's ‘Boneyard’

At Tucson's "Boneyard," row upon row of B-52s, F-4 Phantoms, A-10 Warthogs and some of the rarest military aircraft dating back to World War II provide a panoramic vision of aviation history.

But there is more to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group than storing mothballed aircraft on this site adjacent to Davis-Monthan AFB.

The operation cares for older fighter jets, some of which may end up as the nemesis in practice dogfights with newer jets. It also rejuvenates aircraft and reclaims parts, a service that brought in $557 million in 2010.

"We have a very diverse mission," said Col. Patrick T. Kumashiro, who commands the facility.

When the facility was established in April 1946, its priority was simply offering a place to store old cargo planes and WWII bombers. Due to the dry climate and the clay-like subsoil that could support the weight of planes, Tucson turned out to be an ideal location.

The mission remained the same when Eddie Romero began working here as a civilian 26 years ago.

"It was a much smaller operation back then, he said. "They would just drop us out in the desert to work all day and we'd be out there with the coyotes."

In many ways, the "Boneyard" and its growing mission are examples of how the military is taking steps to conserve resources, recycle materials and save money. According to Kumashiro, finding ways to stretch taxpayer dollars is part of the Air Force's responsibility in the current economic climate.

One example is in the A-10 Wing Shop, where old or damaged wings of A-10C aircraft are replaced or repaired. Henry W. "Tank" Thomas Jr., a civilian worker, is the only person with the Air Force who removes old parts of ballistic foam from damaged wings and either builds new parts or adds to the old ones. Because of his specialized position, the base saves nearly $65,000 for each wing that is refurbished.

"This is a one-of-a-kind job that we do here at Davis-Monthan AFB," Thomas said. "All other USAF bases that have A-10C aircraft order their foam pieces through the GSA (U.S. General Services Administration) supply system."

As important as cost-saving measures are to those working here, it's the spectacle of rare and historic aircraft that keeps tourists coming day in and day out. Every year between 25,000 and 30,000 visitors tour the "Boneyard."

A stretch of road known as Celebrity Row displays some of the most significant aircraft in U.S history, including the YC-14, a prototype cargo plane designed to replace the C-130 Hercules, and the F-100 Super Sabre, the first U.S. Air Force aircraft to break the sound barrier.

Even for those who see it every day, the "Boneyard" continues to impress. Jeffrey Gammel, a longtime civilian employee, is still amazed when he comes to work and sees a C-5 Galaxy, one of the largest military aircraft in the world, being parked.

"Sometimes, you'll be driving in and you'll see the big C-5s come in and get rolled over the freeway and it's a pretty cool sight," Gammel said. "Yeah, I've always liked my job here."

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Spring Eselgroth/Cronkite News Service

C-130 Hercules cargo planes sit on Celebrity Row at the 'Boneyard' at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

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Facts about the facility

  • The "Boneyard" covers 2,600 acres.
  • More than 4,000 aircraft are at the facility.
  • It reached an all-time high in 1973 with 6,018 aircraft.
  • Ninety-minute "Boneyard" tours are provided by the Pima Air and Space Museum, Monday through Friday (except federal holidays). Tours cost $7.